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A modest proposal to help Mizzou cut down on turnovers

It rhymes with “crow town.”

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt
It would not be the worst thing in the world if Drew Lock et al ran fewer than 2.82 plays per minute this year.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Something I read this week got the ol’ interest neurons a-firing. It was Aaron Reiss’ Derek Dooley profile in the Kansas City Star. Which you should read, if you haven’t already, because it’s good.

Aside from saying Missouri’s offense had a lot of “empty calories” – in Reiss’ paraphrasing of Dooley – and scored only 18 points a game against bowl teams last year (which, I seem to remember, are points a certain snap-counter tried to make every now and then in the Josh Heupel years only to be dismissed as a hater, but now that the new OC is saying it, I suppose it’s valid…or something…but I digress…), Dooley seized upon the very thing that’s been keeping Missouri’s offense from being elite as it puts up all these yards and points: turnovers.

The Tigers ranked 111th and 94th in giveaways over the past two seasons and came in 111th and 85th in turnover margin per game.

So what can you do to cut down on the turnovers? You can do more ball-security drills with your skill position players, or tell Drew Lock to take the checkdown every now and then instead of testing the safety over top.

But might pace have something to do with it as well?

If you’ve read any of my work, you know I’m fairly obsessed with offensive pace. Have been ever since I covered Gus Malzahn’s offenses at Auburn in 2010-11. Despite being hell on the opposing defense – and, as Missouri has demonstrated the past two years as well, hell on your own defense if it’s not in a good place – might it also force you into more turnovers than you would commit if you were going a little slower?

Quick reads aren’t always the best ones, after all. Neither is it always the best decision to rush up to the line and chuck it to try and catch a winded defense napping. And gassed ballcarriers make more likely fumblers.

How can we quantify this? Not easily and not thoroughly. But we can take some clues from the teams at the top and bottom of the turnover pile over the past five years.

From 2013-17, I looked at the top 20 and bottom 20 teams (with ties making it 22, or 25, sometimes) in turnovers per game. Then I plotted their games, plays, turnovers, time of possession, plays per minute of possession and plays per turnover.

Over the life of this study, low-turnover teams averaged 2.28 plays per minute. High-turnover teams averaged 2.47, or went about 8.33 percent faster.

Missouri, for comparison’s sake, ran 2.62 plays per minute over the stretch, or 15 percent faster than the low-turnover average.

In two years – 2016 and 2017 – the Tigers ranked just outside that bottom 20 in turnovers per game. Those years, they averaged 3.25 and 2.82 plays per minute. In two other years – 2013 and 2014 – they ranked inside the top 20 in turnovers per game. They averaged 2.48 and 2.35 plays per minute.

Or about 17-24 percent slower than they went in their high-turnover recent years.

The impact varies on a year-to-year basis. In 2016, the low-turnover teams (2.20 plays per minute) went about 12 percent slower than the high-turnover teams (2.50). In 2014, they went only 4 percent slower (2.34 vs. 2.45).

In each of the past five seasons, the low-turnover teams went slower than the high-turnover ones. “Yes, dummy,” you might be thinking right about now, “but fastball teams are going to commit more turnovers because they run more plays.”

“OK, jeez,” I might reply. “No need to resort to personal attacks.” Also, consider this: the high-turnover teams ran 72.6 plays per game over the past five years. The low-turnover teams: 70.5.

A difference of 2.98 percent. Keep in mind that the difference in turnovers per game (1.00 versus 2.26) is 126 percent.

So it’s not just “they run more plays.” Thank you very much.

Correlation does not equal causation, but I feel comfortable saying that a drop in pace could probably help Missouri mitigate a bit of its turnover woes all on its lonesome.

Say it with me now: SLOW. GOT. DANG. DOWN.

Let’s say the Tigers take about 8.33 percent of their foot off the pedal this year. That would translate to about 2.59 plays per minute. Which, if you’re holding the ball for 30 minutes, is still a 78-play game. So, still a nice clip.

Which role models should they look to, as far as teams that went fast but still held on to the ball?

2017 Florida Atlantic (2.67 plays/minute; 0.93 TO/game)
2017 Wake Forest (2.74 plays/minute; 1.00 TO/game)
2015 Bowling Green (2.91 plays/minute; 1.07 TO/game)
2015 Indiana (2.78 plays/minute; 1.08 TO/game)
2015 Memphis (2.61 plays/minute; 1.08 TO/game)
2014 Oregon (2.78 plays/minute; 0.73 TO/game)
2014 Northern Illinois (2.67 plays/minute; 0.86 TO/game)
2014 Texas State (2.73 plays/minute; 1.00 TO/game)
2014 Arizona State (2.61 plays/minute; 1.00 TO/game)
2014 Baylor (3.01 plays/minute; 1.00 TO/game)
2013 Northern Illinois (2.68 plays/minute; 1.21 TO/game)
2013 Baylor (3.03 plays/minute; 1.23 TO/game)
2013 Washington (2.74 plays/minute; 1.23 TO/game)
2013 East Carolina (2.70 plays/minute; 1.23 TO/game)

Notice something? Not much Power-5 precedent: seven over the past five years, including Baylor twice.

Those seven averaged about 9.47 wins over a 13-game schedule, and all of them made bowls: from 6-7 Indiana to 13-2 Oregon.

So, if Missouri can pull off keeping the pace relatively high and cutting down seriously on turnovers, the reward is high. But, again, kind of hard to do.

Take a look at the work, if you want: